Beowulf (6/10)

Whenever reviewing a movie based on a book, I always do my best to not compare it too much to the text. There are things books can do that no movie can do, and there are things movies can do that no books can do. When watching, for example, a Harry Potter movie, I don’t spend the entire time thinking, “Oh, they cut that out! What?? They cut that out! Oh great, they cut that out!” When I do review a movie based on a book, I judge the movie based on its own merits and how well it captures the spirit or essence (if applicable) of the source material. Beowulf bears little resemblance except in names and a few spotty events here and there to the centuries-old epic poem that it comes from, but it is not this lack of similarity that ultimately fells Beowulf. The first half of the film is fairly solid, but the second half is full of random events strung together in an inexplicable order, and a finale that changes the tragedy of Beowulf into the typical grand action finale that a hero must endure in order to restore his pride, complete with an unbelievably cheesy “reunion” between a father and son.

The film opens with great reveling going in a King Hrothgar’s grand mead hall, which causes great emotional pain to the twisted monstrosity of Grendel, who lives in a cave a few miles from the hall. In a blind rage, Grendel screams his way down to the mead hall and literally tears and rips everybody that he can apart, so Hrotghar calls for a hero to come and defeat this monster. Five convenient minutes later, Beowulf shows up and claims he can dispatch this foul beast.

The greatest strength of Beowulf is its ridiculously good CGI. Gone are the dead eye days of motion-capture Polar Express, replaced with an invigoratingly and refreshingly real spectacle. Sometimes the characters move a little stiffly, though, their mouths are still not quite right, and their fingers seem to be composed of only one joint. This aside, though, it’s still a fantastic film to look at, and when you see it in 3D, which I did, it’s even more beautiful, and very well done. And apparently CGI blood is only worthy of a PG-13 rating, as opposed to real blood. A lot of blood hits the screen in Beowulf, and the titular hero seems obsessed with plunging his sword into monsters and and sliding the blade all the way down so that spatters of what appear to be crimson-colored mercury fly at us. It’s extremely cool looking, but sometimes the blood reminded me a little bit too much of 300 and the video game God of War. It’s not very realistic blood at all, and seems content to act as if were in space, congealing together in random blobs. But it still looks so darn cool – the action is breathless and fast-paced, and Grendel looks perfectly twistedly disgusting, a mass of flesh and bones seemingly put together by a drunk man, and his scream of pain is hauntingly mournful.

If only the story of Beowulf had kept up to par with the computer-generated effects, but fortunately for us a few noteworthy performances brighten up the dull story. Ray Winstone does an admirable job as Beowulf, but it’s nothing more than what is required, and it seems more like the role should have gone to Gerard Butler, who had poundingly loud charisma out the wazoo in 300. Anthony Hopkins is absolutely perfect as King Hrothgar, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother placed into a devastatingly beautiful body with gold liquid tastefully covering certain areas of her anatomy is absolutely stunning. John Malkovich brings a certain amount of color to a character who would have been just a whiny bore otherwise, and Sebastien Roche as Beowulf’s second in command shines out among all of these greats with some very interesting touches to his character. I actually found him the most fascinating out of the bunch.

And now the story. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The worst part about Beowulf is how we feel time passing. When Grendel attacks the mead hall, Beowulf comes onscreen just a few minutes later, giving us the impression that he was just a couple of blocks away as opposed to a couple of oceans away. Later on, in a time when decades are supposed to pass, the movie opts for a cop-out scene that is supposed to show us time passes, but which would have worked better with some kind of montage. Aside from the time problems, when the movie departs from the epic poem it gets very confused. Several things happen, one after the other, that caused me to shake my head in confusion, for these things are never really explained and seem merely to be placed there for convenience’s sake. And in the final moments of supposed glory, the message of the original text is diluted in an overdrawn final sequence that completely takes away the impact of who Beowulf truly is, transforming him into some kind of hero as opposed to the self-absorbed monster of pride that he really was. I know that I said that I don’t judge movies based on the books, but this final bit was just too much for me. It took away from the original text too much, and devolved into a typical predictable ending.

By the time the credits rolled, there had been more than few giggles in the audience at just how silly this story had been, and in essence, Beowulf is fairly silly, for one, because of its rating. At one point Beowulf has a nude fight with Grendel, and shadows conspicuously cover up his private parts here and there so that it didn’t have to be rated R. Supposedly we’re supposed to take this as some grand gesture of Beowulf meeting the monster as his level, but a lot of the people in the audience merely laughed, and I gotta tell ya, so did I. Why didn’t they make this film R? There were many places that would have been so much cooler if they had just been a bit more violent, and though Jolie was absolutely beautiful in her couple of scenes as Grendel’s mother, the golden-colored goo draped around her body also inspired a few laughs from the audience.

Beowulf is not a triumph, but it sure is damn fun to look at, and the action sequences are elaborately staged and ultimately fairly successful. Sometimes the story does come off as too cheesy, if a better director and writer could have been found, it could have been an epic that we could have taken seriously as opposed to the piece of fun Friday night trash that it is. It sure looks like really good trash, but there’s not much redeeming value behind it all. I will recommend it, but if you’re expecting some grand epic story of massive caliber, you will be disappointed. Ratatouille’s animation Oscar is still safely in the bag.

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